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Handle with care

Professor Judith Bryant receives e-mails from students all the time. Usually, they are course related. But when they bring up relationship problems or when they reveal what medication a student is taking for mental problems, Bryant, a psychology professor, is put in a tough spot.

“It’s hard to know what to do with that,” she said. “I’m not a psychotherapist.”

With e-mail so common and simple, a number of concerned professors say students are crossing student-professor relationship boundaries and are becoming excessively demanding and impatient.

Business professor Nathan Stuart said that when it comes to e-mail, the traditional formality between students and professors crumbles.

“E-mail has reduced the perceived hierarchical distance between students and professors, and student e-mails are apt to be terse, peremptory, demanding and otherwise disrespectful,” he said.

Bryant, who has an interest in psycholinguistics, or the psychological interpretations of language, said she’s planning to conduct a study analyzing e-mails sent from students to professors.

“I’m interested in the kind of impressions professors form of students on the basis of how they present themselves in e-mail,” she said. “Whether it’s oral or written, we draw a lot of information about people from the way they present themselves in their language. And I think because e-mail is so informal, it’s sometimes easy to forget that someone is getting an impression of this.”

But professors may have an impression before they even begin to read the e-mail.

“We’ve seen all kinds of silly, inappropriate, peculiar addresses,” Bryant said. “We had a student who applied to the doctorate program whose e-mail address was ‘blackdevil.’ So immediately you have a reaction to that.”

Bryant also said that in large classes, e-mails are often the only way professors can gauge a student’s personality. If a student is too informal or sloppy, it can irritate or annoy the professor, leaving a sour impression.

“Sometimes there’s no greeting, no capitalization, no punctuation and lots of misspellings,” said psychology professor Tammy Allen, who said she sometimes feels “overloaded” with e-mails from students. “It’s a pet peeve.”

Stuart said he receives e-mails from students not in his class and even got one from another university.

“He was just looking for help,” Stuart said. “But I said ‘Sorry, you’re not my student.'”

Many of the e-mails are requests for teaching notes on a day a student missed class, according to several professors.

“That’s pretty high on the frustration scale,” Stuart said.

More frustrating, at least for Stuart, is the authoritative nature of some e-mails.

“It’s mostly a tone of ‘Do this for me now,'” Stuart said. “There are times when I don’t have a problem with that. But when you’re e-mailing me at 11 at night and then complaining the next morning that I didn’t reply soon enough, sorry, it’s not going to happen.”

With the advent of online tools such as Blackboard and an increasing number of online classes, many professors say e-mail is a vital tool to teaching in this electronic age.

Yancy Edwards, who teaches marketing and research at the College of Business Administration, says he encourages e-mailing.

“It’s actually good if I’m getting e-mails from students, because if I get a bunch of e-mails about the same question, then I’ll send general e-mail to everybody addressing this question,” he said. “If anything, some students probably think I send too many e-mails.”

According to one professor, relying too much on e-mails to communicate can have academic and personal pitfalls.

“I see less and less students in my office because e-mail is easier and more convenient,” Allen said. “I think we’re beginning to miss an element of the interpersonal, real-time interaction that can be beneficial to students.”